Missoula may be a tourist destination, but a more sinister type of visitor is raising concerns within the community.
Local law enforcement agencies called a meeting last week after a local transient, Gilbert “Jack” Berry, was brutally beaten, tortured and killed by several non-local transients.
Two of the suspects were arrested and charged with felonies in conjunction with the July 30 murder. But the man who allegedly pulled the trigger, Kevin Lino, has not been apprehended. Berry’s murder was followed by an alleged rape, perpetrated by another transient who listed no address when he appeared in Missoula Justice Court.
Earlier in July, a woman was attacked while she was walking home along the Higgins Avenue Bridge. William Ashley Sandel, the transient man who was charged with the crime, told police he wanted to “do something with someone new” and admitted to grabbing another woman running along the Kim Williams Trail the week before.
The recent onslaught of transient crime has sparked concerns about who Missoula welcomes during the summer and why.
“The person that was killed was a Reserve Street local,” Missoula Police Officer Andy Roy explained. “And the kids that killed him were a new group that came in. This would be a good reminder that we have a town that has open arms for these folks … but we don’t know anything about these people that are coming into our community.”
And Roy has a point. Lino is actually a suspect in a eerily similar transient murder case out of Massachusetts.
Roy, who is the city’s main bicycle police officer, primarily deals with the homeless and transient population. He said there’s a big difference between the local transient population and the newcomers. The locals heed his warnings and abide by city ordinances, for the most part. But when he approaches the new transients, Roy said he’s consistently met with a “lousy” attitude.
He explained that over the past few weeks there has been an influx of transients coming in and overstaying their welcome in camps near the Kim Williams Trail and off the Reserve Street Bridge. He would like to see a multi-agency task force work together to monitor the camps before the behavior moves downtown.
“The attitude is we don’t have to deal with them, but they all come into town at some point, so why not make it so they can’t camp out there?” he questioned.
Camping is illegal in town, but Missoula police don’t have jurisdiction over the notorious camps where transients stay on the urban fringes. The two major camps – off the Kim Williams Trail and under the Reserve Street Bridge – are on U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Transportation ground, respectively.
For U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Morgan Dale, there’s no easy solution to the problem. He said the agency can’t just remove people from their camps.
“It’s a little more complicated than that, because then where are they going to go?” Dale questioned.
He said the meeting between the agencies occurred last week after members of the public voiced concerns about safety and the condition of camps where transient people live.
Dale is drafting a Memorandum of Understanding between the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, Missoula police, MDT, Missoula City Fire Department, Health and Human Services and the Forest Service. After it’s signed, the agreement will allow all law enforcement agencies to collaborate and respond to each other’s calls in these target areas. It’s not exactly the task force Roy is looking for, but Dale thinks it’s worth a shot.
“It’s worth a try for us to show law enforcement presence,” he said. “We also want to make sure that folks living in those transient camps are OK. We don’t want to see them hurt out there or be in a bad way out there.”
A stronger law enforcement presence will work to curb crime, and may help people living on society’s fringe to develop a more trusting relationship with law enforcement, police spokesman Travis Welsh said, comparing law enforcement’s commitment to respond to an emergency to doctors abiding by the Hippocratic Oath.
“We are not in the business of picking and choosing who we provide service to,” he said. “If someone calls for help, we go, regardless of where they come from and how long they were here.”
In the meantime, Roy said he had a meeting with city prosecutors and Missoula Parks and Recreation about their options to stop bad behavior from a core group of non-local transients. He said they are consistently damaging city property and littering all over city parks.
“Chronic abusers who are documented damaging city property ... we can move them along if they are causing a headache,” he said.